On April 14, 1865, actor John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C.
While Booth was one person acting at one moment, he had planned the assassination for months with a group of fellow Confederate sympathizers. The web of conspirators was far more complex than most realize.
In this exhibition, you will learn about the people who joined Booth in plotting to topple the United States government through violence. Many of the objects they carried that day became evidence used against them at trial, and today those objects are held in the collection of Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site. Here, you will learn about the lives, plans and ultimate fates of the men—and woman—who hoped to bring the Union to its knees.
John Wilkes Booth, a successful young star of the era, performed several times at Ford’s Theatre. Though only 26, Booth had enjoyed an early rise to prominence on the American stage, partially due to the fame of his family—his father, the English tragedian, Junius Brutus Booth and his brother, Edwin Booth.
The critics hailed John Wilkes Booth’s dramatic talents on the stage, and his dark good looks made him one of the most popular matinee idols of his time. Booth was best known for his performances in Shakespearean dramas.
As Confederate sympathizers, Booth and his colleagues began to conspire to kidnap Lincoln in 1864. In early 1865, as the imminent defeat of the Confederacy became apparent, Booth switched the group's plans to murder. Booth himself chose to assassinate Lincoln.
Following the assassination, while hiding in southern Maryland and Virginia, Booth was stunned to find himself denounced in the press as “a common cutthroat.” He had expected to be portrayed as a hero. Booth saw parallels between his own story and that of Brutus in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” Caesar, the Roman dictator, was murdered by a group of senators led by Brutus in an attempt to save the Roman republic from becoming an empire.
After fleeing Ford's Theatre, Booth stopped at Mary Surratt's tavern in present-day Clinton, Maryland, and then at the Maryland home of Dr. Samuel Mudd. Mudd cut off Booth’s boot to set his broken leg —the boot was later used as evidence in Mudd’s trial.
Booth then proceeded through southern Maryland and northeastern Virginia for the next 12 days, until Union soldiers confronted him and co-conspirator David Herold in a barn on April 26.
“I have too great a soul to die like a criminal.” --Booth's diary, April 1865
“Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment. I struck for my country and that alone. A country that groaned beneath this tyranny, and prayed for this end, and yet now behold the cold hands they extend to me.”
–Booth’s final diary entry, written after Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865
Federal agents discovered Booth's diary and compass while rifling through his pockets after his capture.
Booth was insulted to learn from a Richmond newspaper that the United States government was offering only $140,000 for his capture. “I would sooner suppose more like $500,000," he remarked.
After Booth refused to leave the barn, Union soldiers lit the barn on fire to try and force him to come out. Sergeant Boston Corbett, believing that Booth was about to fire his gun, shot the assassin.
Corbett's bullet partially severed Booth’s spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. The wounded assassin was carried from the barn. “Tell mother, I die for my country,” he whispered. Lying on the front porch of the Garrett farmhouse, he spoke his last words. “My hands,” he gasped. They were raised for his inspection. “Useless,” muttered Booth. “Useless."
Shortly after seven o’clock a.m. on April 26, 1865, John Wilkes Booth died. His body was sewn into a saddle blanket and returned to Washington by steamboat.
Born in Prussia (now part of Germany) George Atzerodt was a carriage-painter by trade. By 1864 the 29-year-old made his living off the Potomac River. Ferrying Confederate spies across the river, Atzerodt knew well the intricate networks of creeks and inlets in the tangled, marshy environment of southern Maryland and eastern Virginia. Such knowledge was invaluable so long as the Booth conspirators planned on spiriting Lincoln out of Washington and evading pursuers on the roads south to Richmond.
Assigned to kill Vice President Johnson at Washington’s Kirkwood Hotel on April 14, Atzerodt drank to gain courage to carry out his task. But he found he had no taste for murder, and simply left the hotel and wandered the streets of Washington.
After Lincoln’s assassination, a hotel employee contacted detectives about a “suspicious-looking man.” A search of Atzerodt’s hotel room turned up evidence, including a loaded revolver and a Bowie knife. Atzerodt was arrested five days later, on April 20, at his cousin’s home in Germantown, Maryland. He joined his fellow conspirators in prison, awaiting trial.
The son of a Baptist minister, Lewis Powell was a quiet boy who earned the nickname “Doc” for his care of sick animals. After joining the Confederate 2nd Florida Infantry at the age of 17, Powell was captured at the Battle of Gettysburg. He escaped with the help of a volunteer nurse.
In January 1865 Powell left the Confederate army, swearing an oath of allegiance to the Union under a false last name—Paine. He became one of Mary Surratt’s boarders on H Street in Washington, where he met John Wilkes Booth.
On the night of April 14, Booth assigned Powell the task of killing Secretary of State William Seward. Powell arrived at Seward’s home along with David Herold, a 19-year-old pharmacist’s assistant, claiming they were there to deliver a prescription. The secretary, who had been seriously injured in a carriage accident on April 5, was recovering in bed.
Insisting he had to deliver the medicine in person, Powell was stopped on the stairs by Seward’s son, Frederick. Powell drew his revolver. When it misfired he clubbed Frederick across the head with it.
Then Powell burst into the secretary’s room, stabbing Seward in the face and neck with a bowie knife. Seward was wearing a jaw splint from the carriage accident, which may have saved his life by redirecting the blade of the knife. Powell escaped but was arrested at Mary Surratt’s house three days later.
On the night of April 17, 1865, Powell showed up at Mary Surratt’s boarding house, while police were questioning her. Carrying a pickaxe, he claimed he had been hired to dig a ditch. Powell was immediately arrested on suspicion of involvement in the assassination plot.
“A strong stout man—rather good looking—wild look in his eyes—he carried a tooth-brush with him.” – George Atzerodt on Lewis Powell
“Davey” Herold hailed from a well-off Washington family. A young pharmacist’s assistant, Herold once sold a bottle of castor oil to the Lincoln White House. His familiarity with and access to chemicals was valuable to Booth in his original plot to kidnap Lincoln, especially if chloroform or some other disabling agent was required to overcome a president resisting abduction.
Herold also brought to the conspiracy a hunter’s familiarity with the Maryland countryside. It was Herold who accompanied Lewis Powell on his murderous visit to the Seward residence. Herold later met up with Booth and accompanied him on his 12-day flight through Maryland and into Virginia, where they were both apprehended in a tobacco barn near Port Royal, Virginia. Unlike Booth, Herold surrendered and joined his fellow conspirators in prison, awaiting trial.
In 1864, Mary Surratt, a widow who owned a farm and tavern in present-day Clinton, MD, opened a boarding house on H Street NW in Washington, D.C.
The extent of her involvement in the Lincoln assassination remains in dispute. President Andrew Johnson said that, far from being the simple, pious widow portrayed by her defenders, Mrs. Surratt “kept the nest that hatched the rotten egg.” Her boarding house served as a meeting place for Booth and his fellow conspirators. The proprietress herself carried incriminating messages for Booth, including a request to have some weapons ready for him to pick up at the Surrattsville (now Clinton, MD) tavern the night of the assassination. Her son, John, was regarded by many as a major figure in the plot.
Nonetheless, at her conspiracy trial and beyond, strenuous efforts were made to prevent Mrs. Surratt from becoming the first woman in the United States to be executed by the federal government. A majority of the military tribunal that convicted her also requested that her life be spared—a recommendation rejected by President Johnson.
John Surratt, in 1865 a 22-year-old former Catholic seminarian, had extensive connections to Confederate agents in Richmond. Using the family tavern in Maryland as a base, Surratt became a courier for Confederate intelligence operations.
Surratt was likely introduced to Booth by Dr. Samuel Mudd, whose home in Charles County, Maryland, was conveniently located along escape routes from Washington to Richmond. Surratt, in turn, helped recruit Lewis Powell.
By the time Booth dropped his abduction plan in favor of assassinating Lincoln, Surratt was in Canada on a mission authorized by Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin. Of the original conspirators, he alone escaped punishment. After the assassination, he fled to Europe and was eventually captured in Egypt and returned to the United States. In 1867, a civilian jury deadlocked on charges against him, and the federal government chose not to retry him.
John Surratt died in 1916.
A stagehand at Ford’s Theatre, Ned Spangler had known the Booth family for years, so it wasn’t unusual for Booth to ask that Spangler watch his horse in the alley behind the theatre while he went inside for a few minutes. Because he was busy moving scenery between acts, Spangler turned the animal over to young “John Peanuts”— more properly known as John Burroughs—a theatrical jack-of-all-trades who handed out programs and sold peanuts between acts.
For his troubles Burroughs was struck severely in the head by Booth’s Bowie knife as the assassin lunged for his horse and dashed into the night. Within hours, Spangler was arrested and charged as an accomplice.
In the trial that followed, Ned Spangler was convicted of aiding Booth and sentenced to six years in jail—the lightest penalty pronounced on any defendant. He was pardoned in 1869 by President Andrew Johnson.
Nearly 150 years later, debate continues to swirl around Dr. Samuel Mudd and his role in the Booth conspiracy. Was he merely a country doctor in the wrong place at the wrong time—attending to Booth’s shattered ankle and allowing him to spend the night at his home near Bryantown, Maryland? Or was Dr. Mudd part of the conspiracy from the beginning?
Recent scholarship has revealed that the two men knew each other long before their fateful encounter the night of April 14 and that Mudd himself may have introduced Booth to John Surratt. At his trial the doctor’s insistence that he had met Booth only once was quickly disproved. Judged guilty, he escaped hanging by a single vote. Convicted of conspiracy, Mudd was sent to the remote Fort Jefferson prison in Florida's Dry Tortugas.
Mudd did much to redeem his reputation by caring heroically for victims of a yellow fever epidemic that struck the garrison at Fort Jefferson, where he was imprisoned until pardoned by President Andrew Johnson in 1869. Returning home to his farm, he resumed his medical practice until his death in 1883 at the age of 49.
In the war’s closing months, Samuel Arnold—an unemployed clerk—was doing odd jobs on his brother’s Maryland farm. It wasn’t difficult for Booth to recruit Arnold, a former soldier in the Confederate army, in to his kidnapping plan.
“I found Booth possessed of wonderful power in conversation and become perfectly infatuated with his social manners and bearing,” Arnold later recalled.
By March 1865, however, Arnold was having second thoughts. Abandoning Washington, he got a job at Fortress Monroe, not far from Norfolk, Virginia That is where detectives found him on April 17, aided by papers retrieved from Booth’s Washington hotel room. Arnold talked freely, implicating Dr. Mudd, who would later help to save Arnold’s life during a yellow fever epidemic that swept the military prison in the Florida Keys where both men were imprisoned. President Andrew Johnson pardoned and released Arnold in 1869.
Like his friend Sam Arnold, late in 1864 Michael O’Laughlen was living hand to mouth, employed by his brother’s feed business in Baltimore. He welcomed the invitation extended by his childhood friend, John Wilkes Booth, to rewrite history by joining Booth’s conspiracy to kidnap Lincoln.
Also like Arnold, O’Laughlen was nowhere near Ford’s Theatre the night Lincoln was killed. Later turning himself in to authorities, he received a sentence of life imprisonment in the brutal conditions of Fort Jefferson, some 70 miles west of Key West, Florida. He died there of yellow fever in September 1867.
Because he considered the Lincoln assassination a part of the Civil War, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton ordered a military tribunal, rather than a civilian court, to try the conspirators. The tribunal consisted of, from left to right: Brig. Gen. Thomas M. Harris, Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace, Maj. Gen. August V. Kautz, and Henry L. Burnett. Seated left to right: Lt. Col. David R. Clendenin, Col. C.H. Tompkins, Brig. Gen. Albion P. Howe, Brig. Gen. James Ekin, Maj. Gen. David Hunter, Brig. Gen. Robert S. Foster, John A. Binham, and Brig. Gen. Joseph Holt.
As the conspirators were arrested, they were brought back to Washington and jailed. Six of them (Arnold, Atzerodt, Herold, O’Laughlin, Powell, and Spangler) were detained at the Washington Navy Yard, on the ironclad vessels USS Montauk and USS Saugus. Mary Surratt and Samuel Mudd were held at the Old Capitol Prison. As the trial date approached, all of the conspirators were moved to the Old Arsenal Penitentiary.
For seven weeks in May and June 1865, the nation's attention was riveted to the third floor of Washington's Old Arsenal Penitentiary. Two days of deliberations at the end of the trial produced death sentences for David Herold, George Atzerodt, Lewis Powell, and Mary Surratt.
The executions were carried out on July 7, 1865.
For their lesser roles in the Lincoln conspiracy, Samuel Arnold, Michael O’Laughlen and Dr. Samuel Mudd were condemned to life imprisonment. Edman Spangler, the stagehand who gave Booth entrance to Ford's Theatre that night, received a six-year sentence.
President Andrew Johnson pardoned the surviving conspirators in 1869.
Exhibition Developer — Kathleen Camarda, Digital Projects Intern
Exhibition Manager — David McKenzie, Digital Projects Manager
Editor — Sarah Jencks, Director of Educational Programming
Editor — Tracey Avant, Curator of Exhibitions
Editor — Lauren Beyea, Associate Director of Communications